For Pascha, or Easter – 2023
In Matthew 27:57-61, the events that came just after Jesus’ death are described. A member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea – Harimathaias, a term used in the Septuagint translation of Samuel 1:1 to describe an area in the hill country of Ephraim – asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Pilate granted this surprising request from a member of the very body that had demanded Jesus’ death. However, Joseph’s heart was sympathetic to the message of this failed messianic figure – as they thought of Jesus at the time. Joseph wrapped Christ’s body and laid him in a tomb he had prepared for himself – a man-made cave hewn out of the rock. A stone had been rolled in front of the tomb, and Matthew’s account tells us that Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary,” likely Mary the mother of James and Salome, were also there.
Although Matthew doesn’t give an account of the birth of Christ – we meet the Lord when He is possibly a year old in Matt. 2:11 – the story of Jesus’ death should remind us of the account of the birth of Christ in Luke 2. Jesus is being cared for by a man named Joseph and women named Mary – a quite common name – are there as well. Jesus’ body is tightly wrapped in linen, just as the Christ child was wrapped in swaddling clothes. Instead of the typical stone manger found in the Middle East, we find a stone slab awaiting the body of the crucified Christ. Finally, there is the detail of the tomb itself – a man-made cave. The oldest traditions relating to the location of the “stable” place it in a man-made cave (Justin Martyr, Trypho, 78) that probably served as the stable area under or in the rear of a family dwelling – the “inn” or katalymati . Family dwellings were usually in the “upper room,” and it is striking that at the Last Supper, unlike the Lord’s birth, someone had space for Him in their “upper room” that night (Mark 14:15).
Thus, across all four Gospels, even those which don’t include accounts of Christ’s birth, we find a Joseph and more than one Mary at His burial, wrapping Him carefully, and placing Him in a cave, on a piece of stone. Also, although there was no space in the “upper room” or guest room in Luke’s account of the Lord’s birth, there is room for the entire nucleus of Christ’s Church at the end of His life. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end.”
In the mean time, in an account given only by Matthew in 27:66, we find that guards had been posted at the tomb to prevent the body from being smuggled out, because there was fear of a fake resurrection. When the resurrection does happen, at dawn on Sunday morning, it occurs “off stage.” This is true of all of the Gospels. In a rare moment when Matthew’s narrative becomes more colorful and filled with detail than Mark’s, the two Mary’s approach the tomb, there is an earthquake, the guards fall unconscious, and an angel – covered with the glory of God (ref. Exodus 34:29-35, Daniel 7:9, Mark 9:3) – rolls away the stone, revealing an empty tomb. The angel tells them that the Lord is risen, and then the women – those who lingered at the cross while most of the apostles were in hiding – are the first to know, and are sent to tell the good news to the men. A new day has dawned.
Justin Martyr, “Dialogue With Trypho,” Dods, Marcus and Reitoh, George, trs. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James; and Coxe, A. Cleveland, editors, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01286.htm